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June 07, 2012 | Tom Ballard

TN-SCORE nearly two years into five-year initiative

It’s been about 21 months since then Governor Phil Bredesen announced that a consortium of Tennessee’s public and private universities had won a five-year, $20 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to boost the state’s energy-related research and education efforts.

The award, one of the largest ever made in Tennessee by NSF, brought together scientists, faculty and students from 11 universities and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The group collectively named their collaborative TN-SCORE which stands for Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education.

Like all federal research awards, TN-SCORE has a Principal Investigator – David Millhorn, Executive Vice President at the University of Tennessee (UT). TN-SCORE’s day-to-day administrative activities are coordinated by a small team led by long-time UT administrator John Hopkins and working out of offices in the University’s Business Incubator.

The upcoming TN-SCORE annual meeting next week provides a good opportunity to reflect on what was planned when the program was proposed and celebrate successes to date.

“We had to prove (in our proposal) that the EPSCoR plan and outcomes aligned with the state’s science and technology priorities,” Hopkins told earlier this year. “Our plan provides that direction . . . from broadening participation to spurring innovation to moving into deployment in ways that create jobs.”

EPSCoR stands for the “Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research” and, simply stated, is designed to help states that are not as competitive for federal research dollars as other states improve their infrastructure to become more competitive.

Hopkins said that Tennessee is one of 28 states and three territories that meet the federal threshold for EPSCoR funding which is available from up to five agencies – Department of Agriculture (USDA), DOE, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), NSF and National Institutes of Health (NIH). In Tennessee’s case, it is eligible for funding from three of these agencies – DOE, NASA and NSF.

He said that TN-SCORE will use the EPSCoR funding to advance three priority or “thrust” areas. They are advanced solar conversion and innovation, components and devices for energy storage and conversion, and nanostructures for enhancing energy efficiency.

“These tend to be long-term opportunities,” Hopkins noted, citing Tennessee’s recent emphasis on recruiting solar companies, the presence of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) largest science and energy lab – ORNL, the successful state-wide deployment of solar energy across the state spurred by programs of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the UT-ORNL Tennessee Solar Institute, and research priorities of many of the TN-SCORE participants.

“Our motto is ‘creating a culture of collaboration’ among our partners,” Hopkins said in explaining how Tennessee intends to compete in the future.

For Hopkins, it’s all about results – increasing and sustaining the long-term competitive standing of individual researchers, building on the state’s growing energy-related companies, and ensuring a strong pipeline of future talent in science, technology, engineering and math.

Hopkins proudly displays a brightly-colored map of the state that shows partners in four categories – research, industry, governmental or institutional, and general collaboration. Some are involved in multiple categories.

Universities that are classified as “originating research partners” are East Tennessee State,  Fisk, King, Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, UT Knoxville, UT Space Institute and Vanderbilt plus ORNL. Austin Peay, Belmont, Carson Newman, Lincoln Memorial, Lipscomb, Maryville College, UT Chattanooga and UT Martin are “collaborative partners.”  Industry partners include Eastman Chemical Company, Genera Energy, Hemlock Semiconductor and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Hopkins said the federal dollars will provide funding in several key areas including:

  • Awards to new faculty at non-research extensive institutions;
  • Scholarships/stipends for graduate students participating in academic bridge programs between Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University and other research universities;
  • Summer research experience for undergraduates;
  • Summer mini-sabbaticals for high school, community college and four-year college faculty;
  • Outreach to K-12 classrooms; and
  • Summer internships and a yearlong undergraduate training program.

The June 15 TN-SCORE meeting in Nashville will be an opportunity to share progress on the organization’s goals.  The meeting has a collaboration theme, and ORNL Director Thom Mason will provide the luncheon keynote for the event.

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